Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Old Man's War

John Scalzi Old Man's War (2005)
I haven't really been following the situation with the Hugo Awards and those science-fiction writers who have come to view said institution as pretty much a closed shop; at least I haven't really been following beyond some highly informative blog posts by Andrew Hickey, so some of my information may be in error here. Nevertheless my understanding of the situation is that a group of science-fiction authors - mostly but not exclusively politically conservative or even far right, and mostly but not exclusively authors of military science-fiction - are disgruntled at the Hugo Awards failing year after year to recognise their genius because racism is fine if it's against white males apparently, and maybe we should write something about a bunch of space lezzers on a planet of single parent Communist sand monkeys, maybe then they would take notice blah blah blah not fair blah blah blah blummin' right-on feminazis blah blah political correctness gone mad blah blah blah...

Well, something in that general direction. Most vocal amongst this contingent is one Vox Day, the author of award-resistant novels and a blog which seems to use up quite a few megabytes talking about John Scalzi, and about how John Scalzi would be a better writer if he spent more time writing his books and less time slagging off other writers on his blog. John Scalzi is, apparently, one of those humourless self-hating liberal atheist social justice warrior types, and his books aren't very good because he's essentially a Robert Heinlein tribute act and the multimillion dollar deal he signed with Tor Books just shows how he doesn't have much confidence in his own writing - with good reason, obviously - unlike Vox Day who is himself the lucky owner of bollocks so massive and full of manly Caucasian spunk as to facilitate his taking the much braver and more noble road of self-publishing. That's how it works, see.

I could be wrong about some of this of course, although googling the name of Vox Day pulls up a series of interviews and articles in which, amongst other things, our boy suggests that letting women vote isn't necessarily a great idea, and that black people are inherently less civilised than we crackers due to there being fewer generations between them and their primitive jungle bunny ancestors; or specifically, he doesn't actually suggest these things so much as draw our attention to dubiously qualified statistics, then shrug and tell us that science has spoken regardless of whether or not we like what it says. Perhaps unsurprisingly he is also a member of MENSA, which probably speaks for itself.

Anyway, someone at Tor Books opined that Vox Day was not a very nice man, and so Vox Day - or possibly one of his fellow warriors of manly truth - has called for a boycott of Tor Books in support of common sense and not having to apologise to no-one for telling funny jokes about bummers. The boycott in turn has inspired a buy more Tor Books campaign, which I'm happy to support given how many of the things I've read and enjoyed, and that I dislike right-wing arseholes as a general principle; and so it has given me immense and almost borderline sexual pleasure to support Tor Books specifically through purchase of a John Scalzi novel.

Okay, so military science-fiction: I don't really like the idea of it, but it seemed I should at least have a look so as to be able to hate it with authority; although I loved Joe Haldeman's The Forever War if that counts, which it probably should. Military science-fiction is apparently greatly inspired by Heinlein, which doesn't mean a lot to me given that I hated Stranger in a Strange Land more than almost anything else I've ever read and have no intention of reading anything by the big-faced polygamist ever again, regardless of Red Planet and some of those earlier short stories being decent. Anyway...

Old Man's War sends septuagenarians off to battle aliens on distant colony planets, furnishing them with extended lives in newly grown combat-ready bodies and sweetening the deal with the promise of forty acres and a mule or equivalent once their tour of duty is done. It's full of nice, big, head-twisting science-fiction concepts, all carried along by a lovely, retrained prose with the unhurried tone of a conversation between old farts enjoying lemonade on the verandah on a hot summer's day. It's almost an uptempo Bukowski with genetic engineering instead of booze, and maybe a touch of Rogue Trooper from the old 2000AD comics. Old Man's War is probably lousy as military science-fiction given that it has no political axe to grind, and seems to regard warfare as something senseless to which logic cannot be applied, which cannot be understood without direct experience, but it's nevertheless a pretty great book. In fact it's so good as to remind one of the entire point of reading science-fiction in the first place; which makes Vox Day more or less an idiot to my way of thinking, should further clarification be necessary.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Midwich Cuckoos

John Wyndham The Midwich Cuckoos (1957)
Our house seemed to be full of John Wyndham novels when I was growing up, so I'm not quite sure why I've only now begun to get around to reading the things. Part of the reason may be a reluctance to buy any edition of a novel other than the one with which I am roughly familiar from childhood, having grown up with the thing even if this didn't actually entail my reading it. The Midwich Cuckoos with any cover other than the classic Harry Willock design, for example, just seems stupid and pointless to me; although given my now living in Texas, I don't suppose it makes much difference seeing as I don't really encounter much second hand Wyndham around our way. Conversely, my recent trip back to the old country included visits to second hand book stores - or shops, I suppose I mean - the shelves of which were positively groaning with Wyndhams; and as I approach fifty it has come to seem increasingly ridiculous that I haven't yet got around to reading some of these.

The story will probably be roughly familiar to most people of a certain vintage as having inspired Village of the Damned, and by association, much of Jon Pertwee's run on the TV show which shall not be named: a rural village experiences a blackout during which time it is entirely isolated from the outside world, something resembling a flying saucer seems to be responsible, and when normal service is resumed it transpires that all the woman of the village are abruptly with child, including the virgins. Sixty-one children are born, all with the same distinctive unearthly appearance - blonde hair and golden eyes - and all telepathically conjoined as a gestalt entity.

For what is a relatively simple story, Wyndham gets a hell of a lot done with this one. On one level it seems to address our shifting view of the world, or at least human civilisation, specifically the view which had recently shifted from a belief in the global conflict of 1914 to 1918 as having been the war to end all wars, to a new understanding of there perhaps being no discrete limit to the horrors which might be visited upon us. Additionally The Midwich Cuckoos explores the notion of the superman or coming race as invoked by both the Nazis and numerous science-fiction writers who probably should have known better, and so here we are rudely presented with the possibility that superman might not want to be our friend, even that the thing which defines him as superman is the very fact of his being our enemy in Darwinian terms. As with the best science-fiction, all of this adds up to an examination of ourselves, and one which must have seemed particularly pertinent during the first decade after the end of the second world war - the question being whether we can afford ethics in opposition to absolute evil, the evil being that which must cause our own extinction in this case.

Oddly, much of this novel reminds me of certain supposedly classic alien abduction cases, and it certainly ticks a lot of the boxes - mysterious energy fields, missing time, extraterrestrial miscegenation and so on; although the earliest archetypal report of its general kind, reputedly occurring to Brazilian farmer Antônio Vilas Boas, wasn't really known until February 1958. This probably isn't significant as the fleeting presence of a saucer in The Midwich Cuckoos suggests that Wyndham at least had one ear sporadically attuned to phenomena of the sort.

The Midwich Cuckoos, for all of its wonderful ideas delivered with the minimum of fuss, nevertheless doesn't score so well as either The Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes. The politely middle-class tone of the narrative may have aggravated Brian Aldiss, but there really wouldn't have been much point trying to tell this story as a variation on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The only real problem is that it sags somewhat in the middle, with one chapter after another related in conversation between our narrator and whoever happened to see something or else has some new idea about the children of the village. Still, one passes through the lull and the end wraps itself up with enough strength of character to leave an impression formed by the novel's more memorable passages, of which there are plenty; so jolly good show and everything.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Mothman Prophecies

John A. Keel The Mothman Prophecies (1975)
Here's another slight detour from the sort of thing I usually read, or at least the sort of thing that I usually read these days given how my shelves once sagged with pulpy looking paperbacks asking questions along the lines of is our world being visited by strange creatures from outer space? The most generous answer I was ever able to give on that score fell somewhere between probably not and nobody knows, and I came to the realisation that much UFO literature is irredeemably cranky, and even surprisingly dull given the subject; so all those books eventually found their way back to the charity shops from which they first came, much like that whole deal with salmon and the Sargasso sea.

John Keel on the other hand lodged in my mind as having written something of some sort of merit, even if I couldn't quite recall what that was. I retained an impression of both him and Brad Steiger as authors of books which were at least entertainingly weird in comparison to all those droning accounts of lonely farmers staring at a funny light which may or may not have been Venus seen through a cloud of marsh gas. Happily it turns out that my memory neither cheats nor suffers from interference brought on by interstellar gynaecologists introducing foreign objects to my bottom.

The Mothman Prophecies was of course made into a vaguely watchable film with Richard Gere, although so far as I recall, said film utilises only a fraction of the material found herein, specifically that which lent itself to a coherent narrative about mysterious creatures and the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Despite the title, there's a lot more here than either the Mothman or his prophecies. In fact there's so much and of such genuinely peculiar constitution that it really makes one wonder about all those other titles purporting to detail accounts of meetings with beings from outer space; specifically it makes one wonder if your average author of UFO reportage has, generally speaking, tended to leave out the more ludicrous details for fear of their damaging the credibility of the story, the story being that those lights in the sky represent something logical seen from an unfamiliar angle. By way of hypothetical contrast, Keel relates as much as has been claimed, regardless of consistency, and so includes the peripheral details which wouldn't have worked quite so well in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He describes the mysterious lights, the strange creatures with glowing red eyes and a terrible smell, and the mysterious visitors who call in the night to politely ask that witnesses keep their mouths shut; and then we meet those mysterious visitors in diners where they order steak and don't seem to know how to use a knife and fork, or make more obvious screw ups of the kind suggesting that someone hasn't done their homework. Oddly, that which Keel describes seems at times unlikely to be part of any deliberate hoax simply because persons perpetrating such a hoax would logically have done a more convincing job of it.

The broad picture Keel paints is both fascinating and frustrating because it works by the surreal yet somewhat familiar logic of the human subconscious, and seems to involve hypnotism of some description, and yet appears heavily reliant on many key details existing independent of human imagination. So far as I can make out, the story told here in meandering fashion would only work as something founded entirely in delusion, hallucination, and common or garden fibs if you allow for the existence of a collective and telepathic human unconscious by which imagined experiences might be simultaneously shared amongst individuals who have never met and have neither means nor motive for transmitting information to one another; although that isn't the same as saying that all of this happened.

The story of the Mothman, Mr. Cold, and all the others appears to be something rooted firmly in human psychology, but perhaps sticking a little way out by some unknown mechanism. John Keel makes no claim to know the answer, and mercifully spares us rhetorical drivel asking can it really be that since ancient times mankind has blah blah blah... All that can be said for sure is that those interviewed herein clearly believe themselves to have had some pretty weird experiences, and the reader is invited to scrabble around for his or her own potential explanation, and therein lies the fun. Even if it's all bollocks, there's a vigorous mental workout to be had from attempts to justify why it should be so.

Monday, 22 June 2015

How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World

Francis Wheen How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (2004)
Here's another existing at something of a tangent to my usual, but it's one of those books which could make for a slightly better world if everyone were to read it and take at least some of what is said on board. I suppose How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World might be regarded as a companion piece to Carl Sagan's excellent The Demon-Haunted World in so much as it's an extended essay on why believing any old bollocks on the grounds of it being either comforting or else relayed to you by a smiling man in a nice suit is maybe not such a great idea. I'd say it might also be regarded as a companion piece to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, but although I remember enjoying that one up to a point, I've subsequently found it difficult to distinguish between my memories of the book and the disappointing evolution of Dawkins into a sort of atheist Richard Littlejohn.

Anyway, Wheen's focus is on culture, politics, society, economics and so on, roughly applying Sagan's genial sense of clarity to the world around us and examining the consequences of twatty thinking. Homeopathy, structuralism, and certain new age conceits all come in for a hugely entertaining kicking, and all building towards a thorough examination of why those who don't actually understand society or how the universe operates - looking at you and Cherie marinating in your Mexican shit bath, Tony Bliar - shouldn't be left in charge of any part of it because they invariably fuck it up for the rest of us; as they have done; as can be discerned by simply looking out of a window. Happily, Wheen seems to accept that as a planet we have to work with what we have right here and now, and that no amount of evangelical ranting, raving, or name calling is going to sterilise thousands of years of ingrained culture; as Dawkins seems to believe each time he demands we cut out all the religion and start being more sensible like what he is, apparently never really quite understanding why some might consider him poorly informed in certain respects.

I've never really understood economics or the mechanism of capitalism and debt, at least not beyond a fairly vague and left-leaning hunch of it all being a massive planet-sized nest-feathering exercise, but Wheen explains it all very well, and in terms that I found not only comprehensible but fascinating in a horrible watching a car crash sort of way; and it's reassuring to learn that my hunch seems to have been pretty much on the money. Doubtless there are plenty of amoral shitbags out there quite capable of launching a testy rebuttal whilst providing mathematical proof of shareholders being more important than outdated ideas of democracy, and how those kids actually enjoy making our cheap running shoes for us, but from my purely subjective viewpoint, I don't see how it would be possible to finish this book whilst retaining the sort of warped political mentality it challenges with such eloquence, unless you're just plain fucking stupid, or evil, or both.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015


Terry Pratchett Mort (1987)
I read this whilst staying at my mother's house in England. There didn't seem much point in my taking books for the visit seeing as she has plenty and tends not to read rubbish, so there's always something worth a look, and she has eclectic tastes - everything from Sophocles to Dickens to Julian Barnes to Terry Pratchett. Actually, I was a little surprised to see Pratchett paperbacks amongst all her other stuff during my previous visit, myself having initially failed to get on with his writing, so I tried one and found I enjoyed it despite misgivings hatched some years before; and now it seemed like it might be time to have a shot at another.

The aforementioned misgivings are based on an assumption, itself based on the first ten pages of my initial attempt to read Guards! Guards!, specifically an assumption of Pratchett having been more or less Douglas Adams with wizards. I haven't read Douglas Adams in many years, and to be fair I may find that my impression of his writing has changed since I last read anything, but what I recall is of an excessive reliance on understated absurdity - that being as good a catch-all term for his style as any, I suppose; in other words, an emphasis on a fairly repetitive type of humour derived from the contrast between the muted tone of the description and that absurdity of that which is described, and in Adams' case described as though by an indignant rural English clergyman wishing not to appear overly demonstrative.

Pardon me, but I couldn't help noticing a spaceship made of fudge and piloted by hippos parked just behind the village hall. I wouldn't mind but the ladies of Mrs. Wiggins' coffee morning appear somewhat flustered.

Yes - ha ha, but it gets fucking exhausting after twenty or so pages, regardless of whatever else the story may be trying to do; or at least it does for me because it seems quite predictable and all a little obvious. Terry Pratchett tends to do roughly the same sort of thing, although when I finally got around to taking another shot at Guards! Guards! I realised that he does it a lot better. His prose is more poetic, feeling less forced, and less like something serving principally to deliver a series of gags, resulting in what feels a little more solid and satisfying as a story.

For all that, whilst I enjoyed Mort - in which the grim reaper takes on a gangly, feckless teenager as his apprentice with hilarious consequences - I didn't enjoy it anything like as much as I thought I would, and in places it really felt unfortunately like a better written Douglas Adams with wizards. The characters are pretty thin, which would be okay under the circumstances but for being just a little too thin for me to be able to remember or care who was who each time I returned to the book, and so it all became a chore, and sadly of less appeal than the small box of gentleman's interest publications I found in the spare room amongst the things which never made it into the boxes of my crap shipped when I moved to the States four years ago. Mort's understated absurdity expressed as a zinger more or less every other paragraph might have benefited from the contrast of improved scene setting, something to invoke a bit of atmosphere, but then again, it could be just me - reading in a no longer familiar environment, head spinning from jetlag, a recent minor illness, and meeting people I haven't seen for years on an almost daily basis. On the other hand, when comparing notes with my mother, it turned out that she hadn't much enjoyed Mort either; so whilst my impression of Pratchett as a fairly decent writer and possibly a national institution remains more or less undiminished, I guess this just wasn't one of the better ones.

Monday, 15 June 2015

My Name is Legion

Roger Zelazny My Name is Legion (1976)
I don't really know much about Zelazny beyond his having co-wrote Deus Irae with Philip K. Dick, although I'm fairly sure I recall having read some interview in which Zelazny claimed to be no more than an organising influence on what was essentially Dick's novel, which squares with my recollection of it reading very much like undiluted Dick, so to speak; on the other hand, internet rummaging yields interviews in which Philip K. Dick downplays his own involvement to more or less a couple of chapters. Anyway, Deus Irae more closely resembles others by Philip K. Dick than My Name is Legion, so whatever.

My Name is Legion might be deemed a variation on John Brunner's Shockwave Rider in so much as it centres upon a man, specifically a freelance secret agent, who has pulled all his punch cards from those big old governmental computers with all of their flashing lights and reels of magnetic tape, and now has no official existence; and so he lives off the grid and tackles ecological crimes, broadly speaking. It's an odd book, tightly written and divided into three short stories. It's detective fiction which communicates in short, terse sentences which occasionally flower into lengthy, fairly intensive philosophical dialogues of a kind which you can see would have seemed a good fit for Dick's narrative. In fact, it reads sort of how A.E. van Vogt might read had his books been written by someone substantially less weird.

The only problem is that for most of its page count My Name is Legion feels like three short ecologically-themed stories connected by a gimmick, namely the private detective of no fixed identity. The point of the collection becomes clear at the close of the final chapter, but after a lot of time spent wondering, at least in my case, why it should really matter that this bloke exists outside of his own information-based society. The Shockwave Rider, for example, contrasts its own fugitive from official record with the expressly totalitarian world in which he lives, but the environment of My Name is Legion does not seem significantly worse than that of America in the seventies - room for improvement, but some way short of truly Orwellian; and while we're here, even the ecological aspect seems a little understated.

Ultimately it becomes clear that the book is about guilt, accountability, and humanity as it relates to its own conscience, and once everything comes together, it all makes sense in a fairly satisfying way, although it would have been nice to have some indication of where it was all heading a little earlier on. I probably wouldn't consider My Name is Legion a classic, but it has its moments, and the philosophical digressions are of sufficient quality as to suggest I should make the effort to keep an eye out for Zelazny's other books. This one feels like a respectable but otherwise lesser work of someone who was probably capable of better.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Splinter of the Mind's Eye

Alan Dean Foster Splinter of the Mind's Eye (1978)
Yes, I know, but I used to gaze at this as it sat on the shelf amongst all those other lurid science-fiction titles in the little room with the books at the rear of Martins newsagent, from which I dispensed my paper round. This was the pre-VHS age, back when it was only really possible to relive the moving image by reading the book. I was twelve or thirteen and my mind boggled at the possibility of there being a book comprising an as yet untold tale of Luke and Leia and the rest, something which wasn't a film but seemed more legitimate than a comic strip, particularly when that comic strip involved a giant green rabbit; but being a novel and therefore short on pictures, it was War and Peace so far as I was concerned, as were most books not featuring the adventures of that mysterious traveller in time and space known only as the Doctor. Splinter of the Mind's Eye was for bigger boys, and so I never bought it or read it; and found it difficult to resist when I saw this copy more recently, seeing as how I am now myself a big boy.

Rummaging around in the February 1980 issue of Amazing Stories, as you do, I find an article on Alan Dean Foster in which Tom Staicar writes:

George Lucas contacted Foster to work with him on the story to be used as the sequel film. At that time, Lucas had to be cost-conscious about special effects requirements as it was not yet known whether Star Wars would break even or not. The writer was told to keep expensive starships and planetary vistas to a minimum and, with this in mind, Foster and Lucas developed the story.

So this would have been the second film had the first one gone tits up. I read The Empire Strikes Back as a comic book adaptation, and I'm almost certain that I've seen the film several times, but I still can't remember a fucking thing about it beyond lots of snow and freeze-dried Han Solo, so I'm not sure this wouldn't have been the better film; although of course all of this is predicated upon one regarding Star Wars as something other than a steaming pile of horse shit in the first place, and I go back and forth on that one.

One consideration which becomes apparent whilst reading Splinter of the Mind's Eye is that Star Wars is fine as a film, and it really doesn't need to be a book. I still think it's a shame how its arrival more or less killed off the thoughtful, largely dystopian science-fiction movie of the seventies, replacing it with a Dorito-chugging blockbuster narrative amounting to Flash Gordon with knobs on, condemning us all to forever experience mainstream culture as something aimed at a twelve-year old; which was never really the fault of Star Wars itself which, as a film, promised only certain specific things and did them extremely well. It was Flash Gordon, but Flash Gordon treated as a biblical epic of the fifties or sixties. As such, it never really needed to be deep or meaningful with well-rounded characters, because epic was the whole point.

This, I would suggest, is why it doesn't quite work on the printed page, or at least doesn't for me. Splinter of the Mind's Eye is pretty much a sword and sorcery quest narrative, much like Star Wars itself, in which Luke and Leia hear about a powerful gemstone which amplifies the Force, and set out to obtain the gemstone only to be thrown in prison by the local big imperial cheese on this swampy, jungle planet, but he throws them in the same cell as these big, hairy monsters, hoping the big, hairy monsters will either eat or shag them, but Luke used to read about big, hairy monsters when he was growing up on Tatooine and so he knows their language and so they team up and the big hairy monsters bend the bars of the cell and they get away and go to look for the gem, and they have roughly the sort of adventures which befell Frodo Baggins before locating the gem, but someone has grassed them up to Darth Vader who decides that he also wants the gem, and some other stuff happens. Luke occasionally looks at Leia's bum as she's bending over to pick something up and thinks Cor! I wouldn't half like to have a snog with her because he doesn't yet know she is his sister, and Leia occasionally complains about getting her princess clothes all muddy, and the little, fat robot makes an electronic farting noise and the English robot says that he shouldn't have to put up with it, and I realise I probably should have read the thing when I was twelve and better able to appreciate it.

Splinter of the Mind's Eye isn't bad, although it may be significant that I'm left without any real idea of why it should be called Splinter of the Mind's Eye. By the time he came into the orbit of George Lucas, Alan Dean Foster had acquired a reputation as someone who wrote fast and who understood the moving image. I suspect it would be unfair to call him a hack, just as it would be unfair to term Star Wars mass-produced generic science-fiction landfill, given that both date from an era in which some level of craft was still required. The narrative of the book was familiar even back in 1978, and as a novel it attempts to squeeze characterisation from characters with no real depth, but at the same time it's tightly written and efficient if lacking in surprises. Strangest of all, Splinter of the Mind's Eye has made me want to watch Star Wars again, which I suppose must count for something or other.